Friday, June 3, 2011

A Legal Historian’s First Book: Part I: “Revising” the Dissertation


For a first-time author, writing a book is a proposition both daunting and opaque—at least it was for me. As this decade-long process draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on my own experience and wondering about others’.

For many legal (and other kinds of) historians, a first book grows out of a dissertation. The two genres are quite different, however, as even a casual perusal of academic publishing advice literature reveals. Dissertations often contain dense discussions of secondary literature and historiography, for example. Others are cobbled together from a series of articles or case studies.

My own dissertation was somewhat disjointed chronologically and even thematically. Early chapters traced the troubled history of analogies between race and sex discrimination, culminating in a study of 1970s feminist constitutional litigation. One of my favorite chapters, on the use of sex segregation in racial desegregation plans, didn’t quite fit and was rather awkwardly tacked on at the end (it later became a stand-alone article). My story ended rather abruptly and arbitrarily in 1979, before Ronald Reagan’s election, the final defeat of the ERA, and the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, among other developments. And several topics of great importance to the book’s central subject--“reasoning from race” as a feminist legal strategy—got short shrift, including pregnancy discrimination, reproductive rights, disparate impact theory, and Title VII.

As it turned out, “revision” wasn’t the right way to think about what needed to happen to my dissertation. “Major overhaul involving substantial new archival research and writing more than half the manuscript from scratch” was more like it. What have your experiences been with turning dissertations into books? Are there particular challenges we, as legal historians, face in this process?

5 comments:

  1. Beyond the question of how to turn a dissertation into a book, how feasible is it to write a dissertation with the goal of making it read like a book? That is, should one of the secondary goals of a dissertation be to create a product that easily transitions into book form? Maybe I don't know what sorts of obstacles may be built into the dissertation process that would make it more difficult to write a dissertation that way; I'd be curious if you think that there are.

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  2. I've had a similar experience to Serena's. My forthcoming book on civil rights lawyers was almost written from scratch. I wanted to write for a broader audience, to do additional research, and to rethink what I had already done. I don't think that most graduate programs teach their students how to write books, and it's worth thinking a great deal about one's objectives -- audience, etc before you start out. I spent a good time thinking about that, and it has made a world of difference.

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  3. I was fortunate enough to have a committee member who bluntly asked me what I wanted to do with my dissertation....before I started writing. I said, "a book." And he said, "Okay, I'll edit it as you write so it will be a book when you're done."

    And lo and behold, after the publisher accepted it, all I had to do was move the footnotes to endnotes and pull out the work "dissertation." That was it.

    I was INSANELY lucky to have such a generous mentor (and he wasn't my chair).

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  4. The starting point for moving from a dissertation to a publication should always be the assumption that much of what has been written will need to be rewritten, possibly several times.

    Start a list of changes that you think need to be made - mine started before my viva as I reread my thesis and wrote "Rewrite much of this - this is very dense and unforgiving of the reader". That is probably true of many dissertations, constrained as they are by institutional rules on word limits and the like. However, do not ignore what has come before - those restrictions can force clarity of expression.

    Books need to reach a wider audience, even if they are never going to be of general interest. A good technique is always to have an intelligent non-specialist read your work. If they can give a short summary of the main arguments and think it is (i) interesting and (ii) readable, you are on the right lines. If such a reader does not find the text interesting, that means the author is not communicating their enthusiasm about why something is important and needs to work on that as a matter of urgency. No publisher will want a book unless they can see why it is something people will want to read (and therefore buy).

    Legal historians face the usual challenge of being on the boundary of different disciplines with different audiences. Does one pitch the research to be of relevance only to other legal historians, or to a wider community of historians, or to non-historian lawyers? The same legal history research can be relevant for all of those, but it is very hard to write for multiple audiences without disappointing some of them: you cannot please all of the people all of the time. Unfortunately publishers will particularly like books which promise constant pleasure for all of the people - that means a larger market. Dissertations usually address this problem with copious footnotes and digressions, but a book cannot do this and maintain readability. I haven't resolved this yet (I'm wondering about it while writing), and think it probably depends on the particular topic - some of my chapters will incline more towards general historians, others towards contemporary legal theorists who may be interested in the topic.

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  5. Thank you for these thoughtful comments. Reading them, it strikes me that there are various timetables one could follow in turning a dissertation into a book, and that to some degree this probably depends on your career circumstances. For instance, if you're teaching in a law school and are expected to (or want to) produce articles in your first few years of teaching, you might have a different trajectory than someone in a history department who is expected to have a second book done or in progress before tenure.

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